Diana Whitmore on Assagioli & Psychosynthesis

Roberto Assagioli was the founding father of psychosynthesis. What led him to develop psychosynthesis? What was his background? What kind of person was he?

As a young medical student in 1910, with much enthusiasm he introduced Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis to his professors in Florence, and then later that year severely criticized it.

In 1927 he proposed that the purpose of psychological healing was to contact a deeper centre of identity, the Self, to nurture its unfoldment while removing obstacles to its actualization.

He created an optimistic vision of human nature in spite of the dominance of the pathologically orientated psychology of that time; and maintained this vision for sixty years.

He dared to emphasize the Soul; man’s spiritual Being, by postulating that this was the source of psychological health.

He recognized the need for meaning and purpose as being fundamental to human existence and well-being.

He perceived life as an evolutionary journey of development and differentiation, and problems as opportunities which aid this unfoldment.

He viewed a human being as individual with unique qualities, and as universal, intimately interconnected both with others, the entire world and with the environment.

He maintained that the active evocation of potential was necessary for the treatment of neurosis and pathology.

He noticed that people repress not only the unacceptable aspects of themselves but also their higher impulses such as intuition, altruism, creative inspiration, love and joy.

It is useful to place Assagioli in his historical context. As a young medical doctor he was in his prime at the time when Einstein was developing his theory of relativity in Berne, Freud was pioneering psychoanalysis in Vienna, James Joyce was revolutionizing literature in Trieste, Jung was giving birth to analytical psychology in Zurich, Lenin was formulating the Russian revolution in Zurich and Heidegger was preparing to espouse existentialism in Fribourg. Most of the great intellectual revolutions were initiated in central Europe around this time, and everywhere new trends of thought were springing up.

In addition to his Western medical and psychoanalytic training, Assagioli studied the major world religions and was touched especially by the Hindu, Buddhist and Christian traditions. He was a friend of Martin Buber and was knowledgeable in Judaism. He practiced Hatha and Raja yoga, the yoga of the body and of the mind. He was influenced by many Eastern and Western visionary approaches and was actively involved in the explosion of new thinking in the first thirty years of the nineteenth century.

In 1910, while still in his early twenties, Doctor Roberto Assagioli was the first psychoanalyst to start practicing in Italy. During this period he visited Zurich to train in psychiatry with Bleuler, the pioneer who defined ‘schizophrenia’ and one of the first doctors to accept psychoanalysis. There he met Jung with whom he established a life-long friendship.

An abundance of contacts and interchanges was significant in Assagioli’s background. Among these were: Russian esotericist P.D. Ouspensky, German philosopher Hermann Keyserling, Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, Sufi mystic Inhayat Khan, Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki, psychologists Viktor Frankl, the founder of Logotherapy, and Robert Desoille, creator of the guided day-dream. These contacts, made before and after his separation from psychoanalysis, both inspired and motivated his creation of a wide perspective and vision, which he called psychosynthesis.

Although he was touched deeply by his studies with Freud and his exploration of the unconscious psyche, Assagioli quickly became dissatisfied and was inspired to delve into the further reaches of human nature. Thirty years later his ideas were in agreement with psychologist Abraham Maslow who maintained that one could not draw universal conclusions or theories about human nature by extrapolating from the pathology of human beings or studying the sick psyche, but that one should study human kind in its greatest, most beautiful manifestations.

Although its roots are in psychoanalysis, psychosynthesis went beyond the two previously recognized forces in psychology, behaviourism and psychoanalysis. Freud’s theory of the unconscious psyche stressed the impact and the consequence of childhood experience upon adult behaviour. Behaviourism addresses itself to dysfunctional behaviours and is used to replace them with socially acceptable and less painful adaptations. However, in the late 1950s a radical shift occurred in the field of psychology, a shift which even today is not fully integrated into conventional psychology – the emergence of the third and fourth forces, of humanistic and of transpersonal psychology.

Humanistic psychology promoted a movement away from the earlier tendency of psychology to limit itself to pathology, towards what the human being is capable of becoming. It studied self-actualized people and psychological health, and formulated a model of a healthy, fully functioning human being. It focused on the evocation of potential, on higher values, and on the enhancement of that which is beautiful and inherently positive in man. Psychosynthesis, which had held a similar perspective since 1910, gained more acceptance with this larger development.

Born in the late 1960s transpersonal psychology, the fourth force, took psychology one developmental step further. It enlarged the vision of health to include the search for meaning and purpose and extended the domain of psychological enquiry to include the individual’s experience and aspiration for transcendence as well as the healing potential of self-transcendence. Andras Angyal, for example, addressed not only the individual’s need to become autonomous, but also his need for the experience of homonomy, of union with the greater whole.

James Hillman (2000) in his book, The Soul’s Code spoke against what he called the psychology of causaulity and the parental fallacy – that psychology needed to recognize the idea that we are ‘caused’ by childhood and parents conditioning doesn’t work anymore. He goes on to say that we have been analysing our pasts, our childhood’s, our memories and it is not changing our lives. It is just too simplistic a view on human experience. Furthermore he stresses that in the cosmology behind traditional psychology there is no real reason for anyone to be here or do anything with their lives and that ultimately we are all victims - victims to past experiences of merely the result of upbringing, social class, race, gender, social prejudices..........

Transpersonal psychology recognized that the integrated personality would not only have a balanced development of the psychological functions, but also an experience of human interconnectedness and an awareness of those social conditions most conducive to fostering potential. This further development emphasized more than the power of the individual for self-regulation and responsibility. It also emphasized the creative capacity for global thinking and vision and is concerned with meta-needs, ultimate values and mystical experience. As this new field has evolved it has increasingly stressed the actualizing dimension of transpersonal experience.

Psychosynthesis, as one of the prime forces in transpersonal psychology, stretches beyond the boundaries of personal psychology and individuality by postulating a deeper centre of identity: the Self, our essential Being. It includes, but transcends, our personal day-to-day consciousness, leading to an enhanced sense of life direction and purpose. It is the postulate of the Self, the value placed upon exploration of potential, and the hypothesis that each individual has a unique purpose in life that primarily differentiates transpersonal from humanistic psychology. At the transpersonal level we find many important aspects of being human; acts of altruism, creative and artistic inspiration, the perception of beauty, intuition, curiosity about the universe and our place in it, and a sense of the universality of life.

We can perceive these four forces of psychology as a developmental flow with each force representing a step forward and a transcendence of what has come before. Viewed in isolation they form unique psychologies, each with their own contribution and therapeutic system. If framed as an evolutionary unfoldment, each force builds upon the strengths and includes the best of what existed previously. Psychosynthesis seeks to incorporate elements of each of these forces in psychology while further stepping into the exploration of values, meaning, peak experience and the ineffable essence of human life.

Diana Whitmore (Excerpt from Psychosynthesis Counselling in Action)

1 Comment

    • Anne Welsh

      Thank you Diana. I believe Assagioli’s Context and Vision is more needed now than at any other time.
      Everything he wrote is relevant in today’s world. This is Globally and in large corporations.
      Psychosynthesis needs to come out of the closet and be recognised for the Power and the Beauty of the work.

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